How to Cast Mainstream Fashion Aside and Find Your Authentic Style in 2024

words CHARLOTTE DALLISON photos of charlotte SUPPLIED 

In our digital age of trend forecasting and TikTok hauls, finding your authentic style can be more challenging than ever. But in her first book, How to be Fabulous, vintage fashion aficionado Charlotte Dallison teaches us how to defy trends and unlock our personal style as she dives into the world of pre-loved clothing and inspires us to get creative on any budget.

Authenticity should always lead the way when it comes to our wardrobes, but it isn’t always easy. We are constantly assailed by alluring images of other people’s style. Every day we are bombarded by imagery that captures the clothes of celebrities, acquaintances and influencers alike. This pulls us away from our authentic, stylish selves – from who we really are and what we really want to wear.

Our fashion foundations are another layer we must excavate in order to discover our authentic style. Perhaps you grew up in a strict household where you were discouraged from self-expression or were part of a clique at school whose members all wore the same thing. It’s important to know that regardless of your underlying story about what you should and shouldn’t wear, you have the power to redefine your style narrative.

It’s time to tune out the confusing din of mainstream fashion media and the tired old messages from your past. Being fabulous is all about defining and living your own authentic style. Let me show you how it’s done.

Your fashion mantra

Most books on style provide a one-size-fits-all formula or a tick-the-box quiz that spells out what you should be wearing. But I’m not interested in bossing you about. Dressing well needn’t be dogmatic. I want you to find your own style, starting with your fashion mantra – a precise personal style formula that describes your individual aesthetic.

It’s likely that you’re reading this book as you embark on a new style chapter. You might already be a vintage aficionado, or perhaps you’re a vintage novice curious to know more. You may want to quell your spending, dress more sustainably or restructure what you already own, yet you don’t know where to start. That’s where your fashion mantra comes in. Before I unleash you back to the shops, I want you to consider where you’re coming from; what your style motivations are; and what style truly reflects your taste.

I’ve included some journalling prompts below to help you define your personal style. I promise this will be your only homework as you read this book – and I also trust you’ll find this exercise fun! It makes a difference to actually write your responses down. We often get stuck in our ways with our clothes, and seeing your answers in writing will give you a clearer vision of your own authentic style.

It’s important to know that regardless of your underlying story about what you should and shouldn’t wear, you have the power to redefine your style narrative.

Now you may have already embraced the TikTok trend’s three-word method, or used a similar set of exercises to define other aspects of your life. I know I once did a manifestation course, To Be Magnetic, which encouraged participants to pinpoint their ‘authentic code’, a system that helps define one’s ideal lifestyle using a few keywords. In a similar vein, here I urge you to dig deep, to find your true manifesto at the core of your stylish soul.

So, pull out a pen and find your favourite notebook. Pour yourself a cup of tea or a glass of fizz. Optional: put on some lipstick. Take a breath. Feel fabulous. And give yourself half an hour to write out your responses to the journalling prompts. The answers might not flow immediately, but I encourage you to take your time and to press on – by the end of this exercise you will have found your fashion mantra.

READ MORE: Nice Rack! We Road Test a Secondhand Clothing Subscription

Fashion mantra journalling prompts

What three words would others use to describe your style?

Ask three trusted people who know you well to describe your style in three words. Promise them they can say whatever they want, that you’re in an investigative mode and that you want to hear their honest opinions. Don’t ask them to explain themselves. You might be surprised or flattered; you might even be a bit confronted! If you like what’s been said, write the words down. If you find that a word is not aligned with how you view yourself, or how you’d like to be viewed, try writing down the opposite of that word or choose a word that better expresses how you wish you were seen. All of what is said, whether you relate to the words or not, is very useful information.

Who are your top three style icons? Think laterally. Who do you style stalk? Go beyond the obvious trending actors, models and celebrities. Think of the obscure TV and film characters you’ve always adored; those wildly stylish musicians you’ve always wanted to swap jackets with; even your stylish neighbours, your slick grandfather or your fashion-forward childhood babysitter. Think of a stranger whose style made you stop in your tracks. (One of the most stylish people I ever spotted was a random woman descending a bus in the middle of Rome, wearing knee-high leather boots, an all-navy ensemble and a red felt hat!) Write all of these people down, then hone the list to your top three.

What three words describe each of your icons’ style?

Now you know who your icons are, think of some words to describe them. Are they glamorous or grungy, understated or daring? If you can’t think of suitable words, search for articles on your chosen style icon and identify the keywords fashion journalists use to describe them. If your person on a pedestal isn’t in the public eye, ask a friend or someone else in the know what they think. Write down three keywords for each of your icons.

What are the top three items your style icons wear? Your mission here is to find the through line. Have a look online or review your memories of what your icons have worn in the past. Take notice of any common threads, especially those that apply to all three of your icons. The notable items don’t have to be super specific; perhaps it’s tailoring, lots of blue, classic cut jeans, oversized jumpers, floaty dresses, sky-high heels, big coats, cropped jackets, bikini tops to dinner. Whatever you see time and time again, on all of your icons, will become part of your mantra’s building blocks. 

Write down the top three things you spy…

What kind of shopper are you? Do you love perusing obscure websites’ back catalogues from the comfort of your own home? Or do you prefer the charm of the in-person boutique experience? Do you love both? Remember there are no rules, it’s just about identifying your preference. If you’re stuck, write about your ideal shopping day to get some further clues. What do you tend to spend money on when it comes to fashion? Are you mad about sunglasses and wild for shoes, yet tend to scrimp on actual clothes? Or are you all about investment dresses, preferring to thrift your handbags? Whatever your preferences, write them out in detail. It’s important to identify what you value as a style investment. You can always find a lean or lush version of whatever you’re after; big spending should be saved for the things you truly value, as well as core closet pieces.

What is your era?

If you’re new to the world of vintage this might not be something you’ve considered before. To find your ideal era, think about the shapes you’re most drawn to, as well as the cultural references. Do you love strong silhouettes that lean a little to the 1940s or 1980s, when women wore suits? Or are you more into soft, flowing florals, à la the 1930s or 1970s? Does the menswear of yesteryear tickle your fancy more than the womenswear? Do you idolise fabulous frontmen or fierce leading ladies? Write it all down. (We’ll look in more detail at the fashions of different eras in Chapter 5, so you can always come back to this prompt later if nothing springs to mind.)

Once you have responded to the journalling prompts, comb through what you have written and underline the patterns you see. It might be that one of your style icons is Sophia Loren; that your favourite thing to splurge on is a wiggle dress bought from a boutique; and a recurring style keyword is ‘glamour’. Or you might idolise Rihanna; be obsessed with more is more; and be described as having a ‘bold’ style by your best friend. Noticing the words that keep emerging should help you to narrow in on your definitive style.

Next, take a few minutes to write out a sentence or two combining all these words to describe your style in a way that feels true to you. Comb through what you’ve underlined once more and pull out the key phrases or repeated statements to find the essence of them. You might need to consult a thesaurus, make a mind map or sleep on it to give yourself more time and space to ponder the precise words you’re after.

The final step is to whittle those sentences down to three keywords. Once you’ve found those words, you have your fashion mantra. Well done, darling!

To help you along, let me share how I used this process to come up with my own fashion mantra.

Dressing well needn’t be dogmatic. I want you to find your own style, starting with your fashion mantra – a precise personal style formula that describes your individual aesthetic.

First, I asked my sister, my best friend and my boyfriend to describe my style in three words. They responded with the following word combinations: flamboyant, charismatic and classic; glamorous, romantic and unexpected; and timeless, considered and approachable.

My icons are film star Anita Ekberg, whose style I describe as bombshell, timeless and European; Annabel Tollman, a stylist I followed closely as a teen and young adult, whose style I describe as romantic, nostalgic and British; and off-duty Marilyn Monroe, whose style I describe as streamlined, figure-hugging and sensual. My icons were often seen in little black wiggle dresses, tailored looks that emphasised their voluptuous silhouettes and classic, simple accessories such as a chic pump shoe or a diamond bracelet.

While I adore shopping for vintage at boutiques I’m also a busy modern woman, and often find myself sourcing my second-hand finds online – I find plenty of thrill in that mode of shopping, too. And, if there’s a vintage market on, I’ll be there with bells on, spending my Saturday or Sunday scouring the rails (that’s if I’m not already there selling my wares).

I tend to invest in shoes, bags and outerwear, while finding dresses and other items through less expensive avenues. 

My era is certainly the late 1950s to early 1960s, though I’m also inspired by elements of most vintage eras of the 20th century.

In whittling down my style preferences to their essence I came to a fabulous conclusion: my fashion mantra is romantic, classic, bombshell!

Romantic reflects my love for dresses, lingerie, perfume and all things pretty. It also encompasses the nostalgia and storytelling I love about vintage clothing. It’s the feminine mystique part of me that’s actually more concerned with dressing for myself rather than garnering others’ attention. Classic encompasses my commitment to timeless, considered designs that are well-made and flattering. It’s a word that showcases my commitment to true style rather than fashion fads. Bombshell is about embodying my style icons’ old-school glamour and embracing my own abundant physique. This word reminds me to think of what my icons would wear and how I can embrace the glamour of yesteryear. I yearn for a bombshell wardrobe in which I can cater to, contour and celebrate my curves.

Your fashion mantra will fast become your personal style north star. I recommend recording it in the notes app on your phone, creating a beautiful design out of it for your wall, or even just popping it on a pink sticky note and attaching it to your computer screen. Next time you’re surrounded by beautiful bargains and feeling confused about what to buy – or whether to buy at all – you can refer to your own very personal fashion mantra to guide you. Whenever you’re in doubt, ignore the internet, the shop assistant and any other voices babbling in your head about what you should wear and revert back to this true and trusted set of words. By sticking to your fashion mantra, you will find yourself focusing in on the clothes you actually want to wear, and honing a wardrobe that truly represents your authentic style.

By sticking to your fashion mantra, you will find yourself focusing in on the clothes you actually want to wear, and honing a wardrobe that truly represents your authentic style.

You can also use your fashion mantra to curate inspiration to fuel your vintage shopping adventures. Pinterest is one of my favourite social media platforms to use for this purpose. I’m not organising a wedding, nor redecorating my home – as it transpires there are further uses for this website beyond planning nuptials and overhauling decor. Pinterest provides a visual feast of inspiring imagery and is especially helpful if you, like me, are a very visual person. I use it to create a pictorial version of my mantra and collate further sources of style inspiration all in one place.

If you’ve never indulged in the land of Pinterest, trust that it’s one of the easier websites to use. Start by creating a few ‘boards’ following the website’s simple instructions. Begin to search for images and ‘pin’ (file) them into their appropriate boards. The platform will then suggest similar images for you to pin. You can upload images from your own computer; create private boards if you want to steer clear of prying eyes; and download the app for more effortless access. You might like to create a separate board for each of your fashion mantra keywords. I have my pins divided into the following boards: Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer, Bags, Jewels, Shoes, Lingerie and Sleepwear, and Style Inspiration. In fact, one of my favourite things to do is have a night in dedicated to overhauling my Pinterest and discovering more inspiring images to pin. Champagne, silk pyjamas and marabou bedroom slippers are optional!